I once did marketing for an old vaudeville theatre-turned performing arts center that had amazing acoustics. One day I was walking past the telemarketing room where I overheard a young salesperson saying, “The acoustics in this theatre are so good that it’s like listening to a really well-produced CD with a great set of headphones.”
I thought of this yesterday when I read a story about tweeting during orchestral concerts in Pacific Standard Magazine (via Artsjournal.com). According to writer Tom Jacobs, a young Alabama journalist was recently asked to tweet from his seat at a symphony orchestra performance and afterward said, “The exercise helped transform me into more of an active listener, a true observer instead of merely an audience member.”
What’s fascinating about these comments is that they reveal a shift away from direct experience and toward mediated experiences. For the young telemarketer, the CD was the standard against which all other musical experiences might be compared. For the journalist, being a “true observer” wasn’t possible without a digital connection to an external social network. In both cases, having a direct, unmediated connection to the art was a lesser experience than one that could be had with the aid of technology.
As an arts marketer I tend to sell the experience of connecting directly with art because I believe it’s the transcendent ideal and that an unfiltered relationship is superior to any other means of arts participation. But I’m 53 years old. I was raised in a culture that believed in direct, immersive connections and my perspective is tied to my generation. Younger people who were raised in more highly mediated, less focused environments may not have the inclination or capacity for full immersion and may not be prepared to benefit the way my generation did from the experiences I’m often trying to sell.
In his article, Jacobs quotes researcher Clifford Nass who claims that young multi-taskers may not value the deep attention that direct experience requires. “That’s a cultural shift,” says Nass. “Artists have to think about what that means, and what they want to do about it.”
Personally, I think it means the days of sophisticated plays, operas, ballets and symphonic works that rely on measured temporal development are probably on their way out. The idea of sitting quietly, willingly, yieldingly and patiently in a theatre or concert hall giving oneself over to a complex communal artistic experience may be obsolete. Some people say that’s a good thing – that it was an artificial product of an overly fussy 19th century attitude about art that’s no longer useful. I can see their point, but I’m conflicted about having to toss out all the great works that were created to be experienced in such a context. It’s possible that this era of unmediated communal artistic immersion, rather than having been a forgettable anomaly, was one of the greatest achievements of human civilization.
Should we invite social media into theaters and concert halls and encourage young people to add our artistic products to their ongoing multi-tasking endeavors? Maybe the answer is both yes and no. If we’re presenting fare that doesn’t ask much of its audience and lends itself to being sampled in small bites, why not? You don’t have to pay much attention to Wicked or the Chinese Acrobats or John Williams’ movie scores to have a nice time at a show.
But asking someone to tweet through Stoppard’s Arcadia or a Mahler symphony or Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring is just plain ludicrous. It doesn’t make sense to produce art that demands immersion for its payoff and then invite people to skim across the surface. They won’t be able to get from it what it was designed to deliver. And we risk having them find it obscure and off-putting and then sit there telling the world what a bad time they’re having while they’re having it.
The day may come when a new generation of great artists create brilliant new works for immersion-averse multi-taskers, but as long as we’re producing work that was designed for fully engaged, undivided audiences, we should do everything we can to get new people to come and stop apologizing for asking them to pay attention when they get there.
If the alternative is to produce art that doesn’t require a direct connection just to get more people to come to live events, why bother?